Student suicides review has “significant shortcomings”

Just three months after launching it at a debate on a statutory duty of care for students in the Commons, the Westminster government’s National Review of Student Suicides is in some trouble.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Today the #ForThe100 group, a movement launched in support of families of students who died by suicide at university, has published a stinging “evaluation” of the plans to deliver on the commitment being overseen by the Department for Education’s Higher Education Mental Health Implementation Task Force.

We noted here last week that its focus on future student suicides and its approach of reviewing internal documentation was unlikely to instil confidence – and now the campaign group has gone further, making a series of suggestions for improvements to the current plan to deliver rapid initial findings and strengthen the overall proposal for saving lives.

The first aspect up for opprobrium is the intent to perform a “meta-analysis” of reports from universities, which the group argues is akin to providers “marking their own homework” – and likely to result in findings that are biased, watered-down, and missing critical issues. The group argues for the use of independent third-party “serious incident” investigations for greater credibility and effectiveness in addressing any problems.

Linked to that is the review’s intention to focus only on incidents from September 2023 onwards, which the group argues is likely to overlook valuable lessons from past incidents. It also argues that as such, the approach effectively uses current students to test systems – potentially putting them at risk – as well as calling for the inclusion of all sudden and unexpected deaths, which it says could be indicative of vulnerabilities similar to those leading to suicide.

If nothing else the comprehensiveness of learning appears to be dependent on a high number of suicides or attempts this year, which is pretty grim.

We’d have to assume that the September 2023 onwards issue is related to UUK guidance on suicide post-vention only appearing earlier this year – the group is particularly concerned not just about its voluntary nature (with no current intel on take-up), but its “serious incident” trigger for a review in the absence of a universally accepted definition of what constitutes a serious incident, raising question even over whether a “this academic year” onwards approach would be comprehensive for the restricted time period selected.

A number of other issues are highlighted. The group is concerned that without standardised reporting mechanisms and rigorous quality control processes, the resulting dataset could be inconsistent and unreliable for drawing any meaningful conclusions. It also questions an approach that apparently hinges on institutions acknowledging and rectifying their own shortcomings where they might lack capacity (or legal ability) to recognise those deficiencies in quasi-public – especially given a perception among many of the families of a “default to denial” approach when confronted.

There’s also worries about data collection (where, reasonably, the group is concerned that at present we only seem to know about successful suicide attempts rather than attempts and sudden and unexpected deaths), concerns about terminology, and worries about whether any recommendations will end up as voluntary regardless.

In some ways this was all bound to happen, and in some ways not. A review not obviously contemplating whether the existing duties on universities are the right ones was always going to raise the suspicion that the sector and DfE thinks they are.

Add to that understandable concerns from families worried about the defensiveness of providers – many of whom have faced those kinds of behaviours in court – and in many ways it’s remarkable that the review was seemingly rush-announced to get through a Westminster Hall media cycle without thinking through the process issues that would ensue.

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